by Stephen Lacey
August 02, 2018

The smart home is a joke.

No, literally. With voice-activated controls becoming more common in households, people are frequently asking their devices to tell jokes. There's an entire genre of journalism devoted to Alexa's humor. It's happening in energy, too.

Ecobee was one of the first smart thermostat makers to fully integrate with Amazon's Echo and Google's Home. The thermostat, located in a central place, acts as a proxy for the smart speaker. People are asking ecobee thermostats all kinds of questions about the weather, breaking news, pizza delivery, and, of course, setting the temperature.

But one of the most common commands? "Tell me a joke."

"It's one of the most frequent things asked of the thermostat. Never in a million years would people have thought that your thermostat would be telling jokes," said Casey McKinnon, ecobee's VP of product. 

Wait, the smart home is supposed to be serious business. Punchlines aren't going to save kilowatt-hours, shave peak demand or make homes more comfortable. But this desire to joke around with our smart gadgets tells us a lot about how we'll be using them in the home.

"The smart home of the future isn't just a bunch of gadgets talking to one another. The smart home of the future is all about the people who interact with the home. We're going to be the technology and experience layer that ties that all together. We think that voice is the simplest, most natural way to do that," said McKinnon.

This human-oriented approach to the smart home drives ecobee, which recognized the power of voice controls a few years ago.

Everyone is taking voice seriously now. After decades of real-world research and science fiction, voice assistants (also known as smart speakers) are finally sweeping the country. Nearly 20 percent of Americans over the age of 18 now own a smart speaker from Amazon or Google.

"I've actually been surprised by the speed at which this has taken off — where now these things are becoming ubiquitous in homes," said Mike Phillips, the CEO and co-founder of Sense Labs.

Phillips pioneered speech recognition in the 1990s. In the mid-2000s, he co-founded Vlingo, which developed speech recognition software that was eventually integrated into Apple's Siri. If a guy like him is surprised by the speed of adoption, take notice.

GTM Research conservatively expects that 48 million households will host voice assistants by 2023. On the other end of the spectrum, Juniper Research estimates that 70 million households will have a voice assistant by 2022.

Whatever the trajectory, it's steep.

Smart speakers are now outselling smartphones, wearables and virtual reality devices. The excitement about voice feels even more extreme than the excitement about mobile apps when the first iPhone was released. 

GTM Research expects sales of voice assistants, smart lights and smart thermostats to reach $24 billion in the next four years. When factoring in all our connected appliances, entertainment consoles and security systems in the home, sales could reach nearly $300 billion by that time, according to IDC.

Voice will be the glue holding connected devices together in homes. Third-party developers are feverishly creating voice applications for Amazon, Google and Apple devices, to be put to use for every kind of interaction imaginable.

Energy companies including utilities, smart device makers and software providers are all rushing to capture voice. Some, like ecobee, have been all-in for years. (In fact, Amazon's venture arm participated in two funding rounds for ecobee.) Others, like Bidgely and Tendril, are actively working on voice products for their consumer engagement services. And utilities are caught in the middle, as usual, trying to figure out how they can benefit.

"Voice assistant devices will be the main smart home control platform. Over the next five years, it'll be the norm," said Fei Wang, a senior analyst at GTM Research, who wrote a major piece of analysis on the subject.

What will people be using them for? Not just jokes.

The possibilities are endless, ranging from bill alerts to device controls to connecting consumers to contractors. Sure, voice can be a simple extension of how we search for things today on the internet. But it also opens up all kinds of interactivity with the devices themselves — changing our language and influencing services based on those commands.

In energy, it's all pretty simple. For now, basic alerts and simple device control are the focus.

For example, Sense Labs developed basic Alexa skills for its app that allow users to ask about their energy use. Sense uses disaggregation technology — a small device that fits into the electric panel — to monitor real-time power usage in homes. It then offers alerts and methods for saving energy. 

"Let's say you want to get an alert when your dryer [cycle] is done. Sense can see when your dryer is done. You could go to our app today and go through a couple of screens to set a custom alert," said Sense's Phillips.

"With voice, you'll be able to say to your smart speaker, 'Let me know when the dryer is done.' It's a very quick little informal interaction that you're much more likely to [carry out] than going to some app and setting up some setting."

That kind of interaction is less about energy and more about convenience.

Phillips thinks voice will be crucial to the evolution of the Sense app: "We're still at the very beginning of [voice]. We're scratching the surface, but there's a big set of things that we're doing now by taking that kind of technology and applying it to power signals."

The smart thermostat is another important touchpoint (voicepoint?) for voice activation. Thermostats tend to be located in convenient, centralized places within homes. This makes them natural extensions of smart speakers. "It just happens to be in a great place," said ecobee's McKinnon.

Ecobee has a major focus on voice. It was the first smart thermostat maker to develop a robust set of skills with voice assistants. It also formed a direct relationship with Amazon after getting funding from the Alexa Fund. (This itself presents an interesting challenge, since Amazon has ditched previous startup partners after creating its own product version.)

"We thought it would be a great place to provide an additional proxy to Alexa," said McKinnon. "Today, people have Amazon devices in their kitchen or in their living room, but they might not have one in their hallway as they're leaving for the day. Or they might not have one in the dining room where they're eating dinner. This provides that extra endpoint."

The same is true of intelligent light switches, another ecobee product. "You probably have 30 or more light switches, and this provides you with an opportunity to have Alexa in any of those places throughout your home."

Ecobee's thermostats are answering all kinds of questions, many of which have nothing to do with energy. The ones related to energy are pretty simple — turning up and down the temperature, checking the weather, programming a set point.

However, McKinnon expects those interactions to get much more complex as integration with other devices using voice skills increases. In addition, ecobee is looking outside the home — partnering with utilities and contractors to help them use voice to improve their customer relationships. 

Dozens of major U.S. utilities are developing marketplaces for consumers to shop for appliances, contractors and distributed energy services. Putting those marketplaces at the center of voice-controlled applications is an attractive use case.

"How do we connect a homeowner with a trusted professional to solve their problem? We're absolutely working on this right now," said McKinnon. "Brokering those kind of relationships is a job that we can do through voice. We can do it directly through the thermostat."

The next level of complexity is using voice command for demand response. Ecobee is developing a pilot offering to slash peak usage. In this respect, the company is way behind Nest in inking utility partnerships for residential demand response. But ecobee thinks voice will differentiate the offering: "We think that's a good place to start," said McKinnon. "The primary interaction point between utilities and customers right now has been conventional demand response"

Further down the road, ecobee sees itself working with distributed energy providers — smart residential inverter makers or monitoring software providers, for example — to stitch together different offerings. As the backbone of energy consumption in the house, the thermostat is a natural place to center voice control. 

"We'll go deeper eventually on...solar, batteries and things like that. That's definitely within our scope of where we want to have an impact on the world," he said.

The direction we're headed in is pretty clear. Our homes are getting connected at a rapid pace, and voice-activated devices are central to this connectivity. No one doubts that.

There are, however, plenty of outstanding questions for the energy sector.

Will this be like other underwhelming iterations of the energy-aware smart home? ​Not likely.

For years, home energy management vendors have been claiming the Next Big Platform is upon us. First it was in-home displays. Google and Microsoft couldn't make that work. Then it was smart meters. Utilities haven't done much that's interesting with the data from their millions of smart meters, and vendors have struggled to get access to that data. 

Obviously, voice is limited by the underlying data. But this feels different. The use of voice-controlled devices is exploding. People love them. And alongside the strong growth of connected thermostats, connected lights and residential PV systems with intelligent inverters, we're seeing a very powerful combination. Voice truly does feel like something unique that can tap the potential of these devices collectively.

Will energy matter much? Generally, no. But it all depends on the use case.

For consumers with solar, electric vehicles and batteries, energy use will matter a lot. Voice is a cool add-on, not central to engaging these folks.

For people with a smart thermostat who just like the idea of connectivity, energy use matters a lot less. It's all about control and alerts. Can you set the temperature easily to a comfortable level? Is it easy to pay your bill? Can you see when your family member got home, or a piece of equipment is malfunctioning? People still don't care about saving a couple bucks, but they do care about convenience. Voice makes this easier, making it more valuable for these applications.

How do you actually design the products unique to voice? Talking to devices is much different than typing questions.

In a recent post about designing voice-controlled applications, Tendril's Devren Hobbs explains why "direct, simple, intuitive" commands and responses are so important.

"A person isn’t likely to ask a smart speaker, 'Are LEDs right for me?' But they will ask, 'How can I save on energy?' Similarly, only energy connoisseurs will know to ask for bill predictions, energy disaggregation or program offerings. That’s why it’s important to build a user experience that guides your customer to actionable insights. For instance, a notification could be, 'Welcome back. It looks like you're on track for a bill that's 30% higher than normal due to hot temperatures. We have found three savings tips for you.' Direct, simple and intuitive communications are more likely to spur an action and, therefore, are necessary to influence and engage mainstream energy users."

Yes, people are interacting with these devices differently. Vendors must design products accordingly. Also, they should program in a few jokes, because that's apparently what people want.

Voice is coming, fast. Any energy company looking to serve the residential consumer should be listening.

"This is...an incredibly adaptive interface that is just going to keep adapting," said ecobee's McKinnon. The energy industry had better adapt as well.